“Turpentine on a Sugar Lump”

2.21.2021 [archived ~ previously published 3.9.2017]

If you haven’t had a cold yet this winter, you are one of the lucky ones. As we all know, there is no cure for the common cold, but there have always been remedies for the symptoms. Turpentine on a sugar lump is just one old time remedy. Remedies that were available at the drug store one hundred years ago and are still sold today include Luden’s Cough Drops, Vicks VapoRub, Bayer Aspirin and Kleenex tissues.

Home Remedies

No doubt anyone over the age of sixty-five can remember hearing about the home remedies used for cold symptoms by their own parents.  Below are just a few of the remedies I have extracted from local histories.  Each of the sources cited are available at the Karjala Research Center at the Itasca County Historical Society.

Delia Westrom ~ Alvwood Township

Delia recalls the home remedies of her childhood: “Colds, grippe and the flu were the most common ailments.  They used turpentine and lard for a chest plaster (bless your hide), quinine, cough medicine, sulfur, laxatives, and horse liniment, commonly known as quack medicines.” [Squaw Lake Consolidated Schools by M. Kreuger]

Delia was the daughter of John and Augusta. Bloomquist.  She married Emil Johnson in 1903 and was appointed postmistress at Alvwood from 1914 until it closed during WWI.  When Emil died unexpectedly, she married John Westrom.

Esther Connell ~ Rosy Township

“Mama concocted a cough syrup for us by using the buds of the balm of gilia [gilead] herb and a syrup.  It worked pretty good.  But when we came down with a really bad cold, we got a dose of castor oil and a plaster of turpentine and lard on our chest.  (Uff da!) But it really worked.” [Remembering Rosy by Esther Connell]

Esther Amelia Johnson was born in Minnesota to Swedish immigrants Gust and Carrie.  She married Raphael Connell and lived to the age of 96!

Emil Johnson ~ Good Hope Township

“For cough medications mother cooked up a concoction with syrup, molasses and some spices when cooled and hardened became a very good tasting cough drop.  A supply of this didn’t last long as it was snitched for candy.  Known in Swedish as Kneck. Other home remedies were not as welcome.  Turpentine on a sugar lump, sugar lump yes, but not with turpentine.  For a bad chest cold how would you like to get plastered down with hot melted lard and wrapped up in wool rags? Encountered many earaches.  The cure – a pad of sheep’s wool soaked in hot fat shoved into the ear…” [Journey Through Time by Emil Johnson]

Emil Albin Johnson was born in Squaw Lake in 1922 to Magnus and Ida.  Emil’s parents were both Swedish and had immigrated as children to Minnesota.  Emil served in WWII and when discharged married Helen Lindgren from Jesse Lake.  Emil died in 2017 at the age of 95 years.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

Luden’s Cough Drops

Cough drops had been made and sold from glass containers like candy since about 1850, but it was William H. Luden who created and packaged the medicinal lozenge. Mr. Luden had already successfully made candy drops in the back of his father’s jewelry shop in Reading, Pennsylvania when he decided to try a medicinal lozenge. 

Mr. Luden collaborated with a pharmacist to develop a unique cough drop formula.  He colored his cough drops amber instead of the usual red, and the honey-licorice menthol throat drops were introduced.  His marketing plan was brilliant.  He gave samples of his cough drops to railroad workers, which in turn gave the product national exposure in a fairly short time. 

The advertisement in a 1922 Bigfork Settler states: “No tax now ~ Luden’s menthol cough drops ~ Price 5 cents straight ~ give quick relief ~ Famous Yellow Package ~ sold the world over”

During WWII, the Luden’s factory worked overtime to supply troops with their favorite throat drops from back home.

Vicks VapoRub

In 1890, pharmacist Lunsford Richardson worked with his physician brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick.  Druggists at the time often fashioned their own remedies, and Richardson patented twenty-one medicines. The wide variety of pills, liquids, ointments, and assorted other medicinal concoctions included Vick’s Chill Tonic, Vick’s Turtle Oil Liniment, Vick’s Little Liver Pills and Little Laxative Pills, Vick’s Tar Heel Sarsaparilla, Vick’s Yellow Pine Tar Cough Syrup, and Vick’s Grippe Knockers for the flu. These products sold with varying degrees of success, but the best seller was Vicks Magic Croup Salve, which he introduced in 1894.

“‘He had what they referred to as a croupy baby — a baby with a lot of coughing and congestion,’ explains Richardson’s great-grandson, Britt Preyer of Greensboro. ‘So, as a pharmacist, he began experimenting with menthols from Japan and some other ingredients, and he came up with this salve that really worked. That’s how it all started.’

Richardson’s salve — a strong-smelling ointment combining menthol, camphor, oil of eucalyptus, and several other oils, blended in a base of petroleum jelly — was a chest-soothing, cough-suppressing, head-clearing sensation. When the salve was rubbed on the patient’s chest, his or her body heat vaporized the menthol, releasing a wave of soothing, medicated vapors that the patient breathed directly into the lungs.” [greensborohistory.org]

In 1911, the Magic Croup Salve was renamed Vicks VapoRub and most of the other Vicks products were discontinued. The flu epidemic of 1918 increased sales of VapoRub from $900,000 to $2.9 million in just one year.

A lengthy syndicated article in the November 9, 1918 Itasca News explained how Vick’s VapoRub could be used in treating the Spanish Influenza.  “The influenza germs attack the lining of the air passages.  When VapoRub is applied over the throat and chest, the medicated vapors loosen phlegm, open the air passages and stimulate the mucus membranes to throw off the germs.  In addition, VapoRub is absorbed through and stimulates the skin, attracting the blood to the surface and thus aids in reducing the congestion within.”

Ten years later Vicks published a children’s book to help promote the product. The book told the story of two elves, Blix and Blee, who rescued a frazzled mother whose sick child refused to take nasty-tasting medicines. Their solution, of course, was the salve known as Vicks VapoRub.

Bayer Aspirin

Advertisements in the Itasca News during the 1920s state the following: “The ‘Bayer Cross’ on the tablets in the thumb-print which positively identifies genuine Aspirin prescribed by physicians for over 20 years and proved safe by millions. Handy tin boxes of twelve tablets cost but a few cents.  Druggists also sell larger packages.

Safety first! Insist upon an unbroken ‘Bayer package’ containing proper directions for Headache, Earache, Toothache, Neuralgia, Colds, Rheumatism, Neuritis, Lumbago and for Pain generally.

The Bayer company was founded in Germany in 1863 as a dyestuff factory. Obviously, they manufactured other items and by 1899 had developed the trademark, Aspirin.  This was a modification of salicylic acid, found in the bark of the willow.  It was registered worldwide for Bayer’s brand of acetylsalicylic acid and was distributed as a powder to physicians to give their patients.

“Bayer lost its Aspirin trademark status in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom because of the confiscation of Bayer’s U.S. assets and trademarks during World War I by the United States and the subsequent widespread usage of the word to describe all brands of the compound.” [Wikipedia]

The company’s logo, the Bayer cross, was introduced in 1904.  It consisted of the horizontal word Bayer crossed with the vertical word Bayer, both words sharing the Y and enclosed in a circle.  In 1915 the drug was sold as over-the-counter tablets. At that time the thumbprint of authenticity was added.


“In 1924, facial tissues as they are known today were first introduced by Kimberly-Clark. It was invented as a means to remove cold cream. Early advertisements linked Kleenex to Hollywood makeup departments and sometimes included endorsements from movie stars who used Kleenex to remove their theatrical makeup with cold cream. It was the customers that started to use Kleenex as a disposable handkerchief, and a reader review in 1926 by a newspaper in Peoria, IL found that 60% of the users used it for blowing their nose. The other 40% used it for various reasons, including napkins and toilet paper.

By the 1930s, Kleenex was being marketed with the slogan ‘Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket’ and its use as a disposable handkerchief replacement became predominant. In 1943, Kleenex began licensing the Little Lulu cartoon character to popularize the brand. [Wikipedia]

And about chicken soup, that stands on its own merits.  We all know warm broth feels good on a sore throat, and that onions, garlic, and red pepper open our sinuses.

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